Upper Elementary Grades Bear the Brunt of Accountability: Educators Claim That Accountability Forces Them to Narrow the Curriculum. but a Comparison of Teachers' Schedules before and after NCLB Shows That Little Has Changed

Article excerpt

Upper elementary teachers won't be surprised to learn that in every state, students enrolled in grades 3 through 8 bear the brunt of educational accountability. All states test all students at these grade levels in English/language arts and mathematics (Toye et al. 2006). Furthermore, an increasing number of states are testing students at selected elementary and middle school grade levels in science and, to a lesser extent, in social studies. Although all states test high school students, testing is done less uniformly; states vary on the grades and subjects tested. Finally, only six states test students at grade levels lower than grade 3 (California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi) (Toye et al. 2006). Although the burden of educational accountability in the United States rests with children ages 8 through 12, not much research has evaluated the impact of educational accountability on schools, teachers, and students.

Teachers provide the bulk of the evidence of the impact of accountability on teaching. Not surprisingly, teachers report that accountability has adversely affected how they teach, impacting curriculum, quality of instruction, and instructional time.


Teachers report that the major effect of educational accountability on the curriculum has been "narrowing" the curriculum. Hutton, Curtis, and Burstein, for example, conclude that the emphasis on high-stakes testing "is impacting how the core subjects are being taught, with the social studies curriculum being relegated to the background and only taught when there is time" (2006, p. 18). Similarly, M. Gail Jones and her colleagues (1999) state that, as a result of the ABC program in North Carolina, the teachers they interviewed spent most of the school day preparing students in the basics, that is, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

It's true that different subjects in the elementary school receive different emphasis in terms of allocated time. But it's not true that educational accountability legislation has caused this.

Table 1 compares time allocations for various subjects "before accountability" (i.e., late 1970s and early 1980s) and "after accountability" (late 1990s to the present). There are two entries in the "after accountability" column. The first entry is taken from the Jones et al. (1999) study mentioned above. The second entry is derived by calculating the median from three schedules posted by teachers on the Internet. The selected teachers taught in schools in different geographic sections of the United States.

A Comparison of Instructional Time Before and After Accountability

Category              Before             After
                  Accountability (1)  Accountability (2)

English/Language      37.0%            33.3% (34.0%)

Mathematics           17.0%            16.2% (16.5%)

Related Arts (3)      13.0%            10.7% (13.1%)

Science                5.0%             5.5% (8.1%)

Social Studies         5.0%             5.7% (5.0%)

Planned               23.0%           28.6% (21.2%)

(1.) Burns 1984

(2.) Jones et al. (1999) and three geographically distinct teachers'
schedules posted on the Internet

(3.) Related arts include arts, music, and physical education

As can be seen in Table 1, the numbers in the two columns are remarkably similar. About one-quarter of the day is planned noninstructional time (primarily lunch and recess). Slightly more than one-third of the day is spent on English/language arts. The proportion of time spent teaching mathematics has held steady at about one-sixth of the school day. Very little time is (and was) spent teaching science and social studies. A more detailed examination of the three teachers' schedules indicates that neither of these two subjects is taught every day; rather, science may be taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while social studies may be taught on Tuesday and Thursday. …


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